Yamaha’s curious new three-wheeler put to the test
‘For a machine that looks so crazy and different, the Niken is remarkably sensible and normal to ride. Whether it will end up a successful three-wheeled pioneer, like the MP3, or a dive up a blind alley like Yamaha’s own fork less GTS1000 or BMW’s roofed C1 scooter remains to be seen.’ Here is our first impression following a ride in the Austrian Alps
AFTER ALL THE hype, and given its obvious physical differences, perhaps the most important realization on riding the Niken is that Yamaha’s revolutionary three-wheeler feels so normal — and sometimes seems to have a distinct advantage over most other bikes.
Like when I’m riding on a mountain road in the Austrian Alps, heading back down the famous Größglockner pass amid spectacular peaks that even on a mild spring day are still mostly covered with snow. Up here you’re never more than a burst of throttle from a bend and the Niken is taking them in impressive style. It’s steering with ease and precision; carving though with an occasional scrape of footrest tip, feeling quick, controllable, and a lot of fun.
Its best moments are arguably the ones that might be slightly dodgy on a conventional motorcycle: on the several occasions that I round a turn to find the road ahead soaked by a stream of melted snow. This could be tricky on any bike, but distinctly less so on the Niken, whose extra front wheel gives reassuringly high levels of grip and stability, even when the hazard is increased by adverse camber or a sprinkling of gravel.
Such feelings of security would probably seem familiar to anyone who has ridden a Piaggio MP3 or one of the other three-wheeled scooters that have followed in the Italian creation’s triple tyre-tracks since its début in 2006. Yamaha joined in four years ago with the 125-cc Tricity, which has established itself in some markets without making a similar impact.
Now the Japanese firm has adapted the Tricity’s technology to bring the leaning three-wheeled concept to motorcyclists. Yamaha say the Niken (the name means “two swords”) is designed for experienced riders, not scooter riders or car drivers. With its front wheels set only 410 mm apart, it can’t be ridden on a car licence in the way that some three-wheeled scooters can in some countries.
Striking design puts the technology centre-stage. Twin fork tubes, their blue finish offsetting the dark grey paint of the bodywork, run steeply down on each side, outside the pair of 15-inchdiameter front wheels (rather than inside, as with the Tricity). The
system’s rods and levers are partially hidden by a broad, aggressively shaped half-fairing that holds a small screen, plus twin headlights incorporating multiple light-emitting diodes (LED).
The rest of the Niken is contrastingly conventional; it’s essentially another member of the three-cylinder MT-09 family. The 847-cc, 12-valve engine is minimally modified, with no change to its maximum output of 115 PS at 10,000 rpm. But the frame is new, combining steel main tubes with a cast steel steering head plus a cast aluminium swing-arm pivot area. A conventional aluminium swing-arm works the horizontally mounted rear shock.
The seat is reasonably low at 820 mm (same as the MT-09; 30 mm down on the SP and Tracer), but it’s quite wide and the Niken felt like a substantial bike as I climbed aboard. Ahead was the stubby screen, a broad expanse of grey plastic, and a simple LCD instrument panel with big digital speedo, and a revcounter bar across the top. Electrics are roughly to MT-09 spec, with three riding modes and two-way traction control, plus a Tracer 900GT-style cruise control, set by buttons on the left bar.
The wide, one-piece handlebar gave plenty of leverage to help lift the Niken off its side-stand. At 263 kg with a full tank, it’s almost 50 kg heavier than the Tracer 900 (though 20 kg lighter than the FJR1300), so requires a bit of a heave, then concentration when it’s upright because there’s no MP3-style tilt lock. The riding position is slightly more relaxed than the Tracer’s, with bars and seat lower and more rearwards, and slightly less legroom.
You feel the weight on the move, too, but the Niken seemed well-balanced as I pulled away from the launch base near Kitzbühel, helped by very generous steering lock that made low-speed manoeuvring easy. So, too, did the steering, which immediately felt so intuitive that I was barely aware of the extra wheel. The Niken didn’t feel exactly like a normal bike but wasn’t any more difficult to ride than something like an FJR. An occasional slight weave at walking pace disappeared as the speed increased, without having caused any concern.
The biggest difference from a normal bike was the effortless way that the Niken seemed to float over road imperfections. As one tyre hit the bump or pothole, the suspension was able to react while the other leg wasn’t affected. The impression was of a bike with far more front suspension travel than the Yamaha’s modest 110 millimetres. Both legs are fully adjustable, but worked well on standard settings. The rear
shock couldn’t match that compliance but did a decent job and benefits from a remote preload knob plus adjustable rebound damping.
Straight-line performance was strong, but not outstanding — much as you might expect of an MT-09 carrying enough extra weight for a typical pillion. The engine is internally unchanged apart from a heavier crankshaft with 18 per cent more inertia, intended to add driveability at the expense of a touch of responsiveness, and partially compensated for by shortened gearing from two extra teeth on the rear sprocket. The gears in the six-speed box are also strengthened.
The injection system is fine-tuned to suit, but couldn’t do much about the altitude on the Größglockner High Alpine Road, which robbed power and contributed to the Niken feeling breathless at times. Even in the most aggressive riding mode, it couldn’t approach the wheelie-happy exuberance of an MT-09 (though one stunt-happy Polish rider managed to bend the rear number plate). But it ripped forward sufficiently hard to be entertaining, making a familiar raspy sound with its stubby silencer and aided by a quick-shifter which, as with Yamaha’s other triples, worked efficiently but only on up-changes.
On the straight roads that run along the bottom of the valleys the Yam sat at up to 150 km/h feeling very effortless and respectably long-legged. It would be good for about 210 km/h and stayed stable on a brief flat-out blast, its screen and broad fairing doing a better job than I’d expected of keeping off the wind. It also felt composed through fast, sweeping turns, changing direction fairly effortlessly in response to a nudge of that wide handlebar, tracking with nonchalant precision and generally feeling very relaxed at speed.
Much of the day was spent on twistier roads, where the Niken partially lived up to Yamaha’s claims of ski-like turn-carving ability. It was most at home on the generally smooth surfaces of the Größglockner; typically, secondgear bends where it could be flicked in hard, confident in the front tyres’ ability to grip, and powered round, sometimes with a foot-rest’s tip touching down as the bike made the most of its claimed 45 degrees of available lean.
The Niken fared both better and worse later, on narrower roads as we headed back down towards the valley floor. Here the surface was often broken, sometimes showing evidence that a herd of cattle had recently passed by. The Yamaha’s stability on the brakes was confidence-inspiring, as was its ability to find grip with one front tyre or the other if the slippery stuff couldn’t be avoided.
I thought the brakes were up to the job, too. A couple of riders were more critical and it’s true that initial bite could be sharper, especially if you use only one or two fingers. But there’s plenty of power available from the combination of 265-mm disc and four-pot caliper on each wheel, and having two front wheels with independent ABS allows hard stopping even on very mixed surfaces. A firm squeeze of the lever on grippy tarmac could get the rear wheel lifting, and not only because the bike’s weight is high and towards the front.
Some riders who encountered more rain also found the 190-section rear Bridgestone lacking in grip and too ready to trigger the traction control on hard acceleration. The Battlax Adventure 41s are not the stickiest of tyres but I didn’t have any problems with them even on dusty and damp roads, and in the dry they were well up to making use of the fairly generous ground clearance.
If the Niken has a weakness, it’s perhaps in really tight hairpins, the ones where I was almost at walking pace just to get round. Here it tended to fall into
Yamaha have adapted the Tricity’s technology to bring the leaning threewheeled concept to motorcyclists
the turn slightly at the apex and then understeer on the way out. The dropping-in effect could be minimized by driving through the bend, helped by a dab of clutch or rear brake, but that high-up, front-endy weight couldn’t be entirely forgotten.
Still, such tight bends are encountered rarely, if ever, by most riders, so that drawback is hardly a major one. It did confirm that despite Yamaha’s emphasis on the Niken’s sporty handling and turn-carving ability, the big three-wheeler is arguably more of a natural sports-tourer. As it is, it comes with reasonable wind protection, a seat that was very comfortable on a 280-km day, sturdy pillion grab-handles, useful if distant mirrors, a 12V socket and an 18-litre tank that would be good for roughly 250 km at the very beatable launch average of about seven litres/100 km.
A larger, adjustable screen, protective hand-guards, heated grips and panniers would add to the Niken’s practicality and make a seriously capable allrounder that would be equally happy scratching, commuting or touring. Those will surely follow although Yamaha’s initial accessories are aimed at “sporty looks and performance” — including crash protectors, minimalist hand-guards, and an Akrapovic silencer.
All of which adds to the impression that even Yamaha aren’t sure exactly what the Niken is, who it’s most suited to or where it might lead. But, maybe, that doesn’t matter because what’s more important is that it’s quick, versatile, enjoyable and realistically priced (costing more than the MT-09s and MT-10 Tourer Edition in most markets, but less than the MT-10 SP and FJR1300). Its exceptional front-end grip is arguably less of an advantage in this era of cornering ABS, but is still a unique and valuable attribute.
For a machine that looks so crazy and different, the Niken is remarkably sensible and normal to ride. Whether it will end up a successful three-wheeled pioneer, like the MP3, or a dive up a blind alley like Yamaha’s own forkless GTS1000 or BMW’s roofed C1 scooter, remains to be seen. But if enough riders can be persuaded to try it, this bravest and most original of recent bikes might just be the start of something big.